LONDON – The Congress of South African Trade Unions, the country’s largest labor organization, recently held what were billed as the largest popular protests since the end of apartheid, over chronic corruption and state capture. In Moldova, citizens continue to protest a controversial electoral law that favors the country’s two largest political parties, at the expense of smaller movements. In the United States, professional football players are taking a knee during the national anthem to draw attention to police violence against black people.
As different as these examples of public protest are, they have one thing in common: they reflect efforts by ordinary citizens to hold not just their governments, but also companies and other institutions, to account. Such actions, and the right of citizens to organize and participate in them, are essential to a vital democratic society, especially during tumultuous times.
There is no doubt that these are tumultuous times. US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have been exchanging incendiary rhetoric, causing many to fear a war on the Korean Peninsula – and perhaps a nuclear clash. Large-scale natural disasters – hurricanes in Puerto Rico, floods in South Asia, earthquakes in Mexico – have brought massive damage and loss of life, and not nearly enough relief aid.
Moreover, corruption scandals have erupted far beyond South Africa, including in Brazil and South Korea, yet the links between business and government across the world remain complex, close, and opaque. Far-right populists have made great political strides in Western democracies, most recently in Germany. And, all the while, income inequality continues to grow.
Against this background, it is easy to see why ordinary people the world over are feeling increasingly helpless. But it is in the most trying times that we show who we really are. And, from small gestures between neighbors and large private contributions to crisis-relief efforts by major companies, there have been plenty of stories of humanity, individually and institutionally, that offer reason for hope. Indeed, such actions, and the sense of personal accountability they reflect, are what enables our societies to progress and thrive.
As we well know, without rules and accountability, government officials and business leaders cannot always be counted on to do the right thing. Moreover, given their influence over policy and the economy, their ethical and moral failures have far-reaching consequences.
Yet, while the need to hold government to the highest ethical standards is generally agreed (if not necessarily implemented), many argue that companies should be free to pursue profits at any cost. Like government, however, companies are ultimately run by people in order to serve people; they must therefore also be accountable to people.
The key to enforcing this accountability is active citizenship. Taught in schools around the world, from Canada to the United Kingdom, active citizenship means political participation at every level. It is not just a nice idea; it a dynamic and vital concept that individuals, organizations, and institutions should be putting into practice every day.
The ethos of active citizenship applies in every sphere. Speaking up about a controversial issue in a board meeting not so long ago, I felt it was important to note that I was speaking not just as a board member, but also as a person. That recognition, however trite it may sound, served as a powerful reminder of a broader lesson: that one must maintain one’s sense of right and wrong, regardless of the circumstances.
Convincing oneself that a decision is purely pragmatic, in order to avoid knotty ethical questions, is not an option. If I, as a person, believe in protecting the environment, or seek in my personal life and business to protect my own security and privacy, I cannot abandon those beliefs in the boardroom in the name of profit. Avoiding active discussion, in an effort not to have to confront the more nuanced ethical implications that might emerge, is no less disingenuous.
Being an active and engaged citizen means being authentic and empathetic. It means considering not only what an issue means for us, individually, but also how it affects others. Many have wondered why American football players, who often make millions of dollars per season, are protesting injustice. The reason is simple: active citizenship means standing up – or kneeling down – for what we believe in, whether it be a government free of corruption or law enforcement free of racism.
An ethos of personal integrity and authenticity may seem powerless in the face of unbridled greed and narcissism. And yet the difficult and trying times in which we find ourselves reflect the need to place more emphasis, not less, on the values we claim to uphold, and on devising ways to realize those values in our communities and countries.
By Lucy P. Marcus